M., the neighbour upstairs, asks if I am going to plant flowers in the large pots overgrown with weeds and dusty, pollution-corroded rosemary. She looks disappointed when I say that I’m not going to bother planting anything, since we’re staying in this flat only six months. As I look at our mini-deck cum terrace, with its floor made of thick, wave-patterned, blueish glass, I think of red geraniums on the kitchen windowsill, trailing their curly, strongly-scented leaves down the wooden planks that make up the wall beneath it. I imagine the fragrance of lavender, rosemary, sage, mint, tarragon and basil, growing in shiny terracotta pots on the edge of the terrace. I picture drilling holes in the tired white wall opposite the living room French window, and hanging baskets of honeysuckle, jasmin and any trailing flowers that are bright yellow. Then I estimate the cost of all the pots and plants, and know I cannot justify the expense for just six months.
What this flat needs to make it into a home, is colour. It is a flat with scarce daylight, and which the landlord has furnished in cream, camel and grey.
A flat where the light bulbs are those energy-saving ones. You know – the ones which need so long to light up that by the time they’ve drummed up a furtive light, you’re leaving the room again (not they ever have the honest, strong glow of a traditional 100W or even 60W bulb). I want to buy a bright-coloured throw and cushions for the sepia sofa. Once again, not only do I tell myself that it’s an expense we can’t justify for just six months, but my now permanently injured back and neck – acquired after lifting a few boxes too many, a couple of moves ago – remind me that, no, we cannot just carry it all with us to our next home, wherever that might be.
It’s Holy Week, and I want at least to make an Easter meal full of colour. I have not cooked a traditional Easter meal in years. I am not even sure what a traditional Easter dish is. I remember my grandmother’s scrumptious cooking. I know I cannot reproduce her touch but I start thinking about the flavours and smells in her kitchen. Of the colours. Red. Especially red.
I wrap eggs in onion skins and foil and hard-boil them. They look like rusty-gold marble, as I stack them in a bowl. I decide to make my grandmother’s borscht. I chop onions, carrots, cabbage and potatoes. I fill a stockpot with glistening white, orange, ivory and light gold. Then, last but not least, my eyes feast on the dark red of the beetroot I dice before it permeates the other ingredients with its colour so full of life. After a few minutes, the rich aroma triumphs over the ever-present Brussels smell of dust.
As I cook, the measured voice of the presenter on Radio Klara – which I have on much of the time – announces Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. After a couple of weeks here, I am starting to make out some of the Flemish words and every time I do, I feel a sense of glee. I would like to learn some Dutch while I am here. A couple of days ago, while buying drawing felt-tip pens from the Flemish stationer, to whom I always speak French, I ask, “Comment on dit ‘Joyeuses Pâques’ en flamand?”
She gives me a long look, then enunciates clearly.
“Zalig Pasen,” I say, hoping I heard correctly, and that what I am saying is true to my intention.
She smiles, thanks me, and wishes me the same.
Easter would not be complete without an appropriate cake. When I was a child, my grandmother would make kalach, a cake shaped like a braid closing in on itself. I remember that Greeks have a very similar sweet, so I go to the Greek café in the square up the road, and ask where I can buy one. The owner tells me there is a Greek delicatessen shop in Rue Birmingham but that sounds too far away. I decide that an Italian Colomba will be a very decent substitute, so take a long walk to my favourite Italian alimentari on the Rue Haute but they tell me they’re not stocking any this year.
It’s a sunny day, and I decide to ease my disappointment at the prospect of a cakeless Easter by exploring the quirky Rue Blaes, full of antique dealers and second-hand clothes shops. Suddenly, across the street, I catch sight of a Polish food shop. I cheer up. All is not lost. Indeed, as I walk in, I see my favourite Polish poppy seed cake, makowiec, by the counter.
Our Easter feast is full of colours and different nations. Russian rusty-gold coloured eggs, and crimson borscht, Polish gold and black poppy seed cake and a bottle of Italian red wine.
Oh, and, of course, a slab of rich brown Belgian chocolate. The authentic stuff.